AUA Heist in Tirana

A well-organized caper at the airport of the Albanian capital raises questions of Austria’s possible role in international money laundering.

For the third time in three years, an Austrian Airlines (AUA) flight leaving Tirana, Albania for Vienna was robbed on the airfield of the Chinese-owned airport. With what appeared to be insider knowledge, armed robbers accosted staff and stole at least €2.5 million in foreign bank transfers destined for Austria, where they would be exchanged on international currency markets.  The Albanian Central Bank does not accept large amounts of foreign currency.

In the incident, one robber was killed, and four employees detained as potential suspects, and although no charges were pressed, Albania’s Interior Minister was quick to suggest that the Chinese management company’s “ongoing irresponsibility” was part of the problem, according to Die Presse (11.04.2019). As with Flughafen Wien, the Tirana International Airport (TIA) is owned and operated by an independent company, in this case China Everbrite, which is responsible for the development, maintenance and operation of the facility.

The theft, later estimated by local media at as much as €10 million, was not retrieved. The exact source of the money is still unclear, according to officials, as is the nature of the original transaction, thus why the money was being shipped to Austria in the first place.

Guesses surround Austria’s tradition of banking secrecy, which, as in neighboring Liechtenstein and the British Channel Islands, has established it as a “soft-core” tax haven. More recently, however, under pressure from Germany and the U.S., the country has joined a comprehensive central account register (2016) and an international automatic exchange of account information (2018). Together these have largely put an end to banking secrecy, at least for the 93 countries that have signed agreements with Austria. Likewise, new limits to the tax benefits of private foundations and other reforms have reduced Austria’s appeal as a place to shelter money.

However, Austria remains an attractive destination for money laundering (in part through the issuance of ‘golden passports’ to investors) and the country is still considered a borderline case for the “grey list” of the OECD’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF).  All of which begs the question of whether Albanian mafia practices, too, are being swept under the carpet.

The current government has worked to de-emphasize the country’s dark-money history. In its Green Finances program announced as part of the EU Council Presidency that ended January 1, the manifesto stated that “efficient, fair and transparent tax systems are essential for the sustainability of public finances; we have to protect our public budgets from tax fraud and to modernize tax rules in view of globalization and new technologies.”

To date, however, not much has changed, according to insiders: “Transporting money from Albania to Austria is nothing unusual,” said one Raiffeissen bank executive, requesting anonymity.  “Vienna has always been known to thrive on money coming from questionable sources, and I will be very surprised if that changes any time soon.”

This story has been updated to include a fuller explanation of the ownership structure of the Tirana International Airport and the Albanian government’s criticism of the owner-operator’s security measures.

 

Fausia Abdoel
Fausia Abdoel lives in Vienna and is a marketing manager, writer and translator who holds several degrees and has worked for companies and organizations such as Fairfood International and the Egyptian Tourism Authority. She speaks and writes in six different languages and is currently working on a book.

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